Floods In The Driest State - By Tahoe Historian Mark McLaughlin


The Silver State is a land of extremes. Although it is the driest state in the union, floods have ravaged every region of Nevada in nearly every month of the year. These desert deluges have a variety of causes, torrential rain, rapidly melting snowpack, and isolated thunderstorms that can create flash floods. As we know from Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005, nothing can match a flood in power and destruction. In Nevada, floods also foster human stories of tragedy, heroism, and even humor in the face of calamity.

Nevada was still a territory when the harsh winter of 1861-1862 turned it's western portion into a quagmire. Storms dumped two feet of snow in the Carson Valley the week before Christmas. On Christmas Day, a shift in the jet stream began a deluge that lasted through January. The raging Carson River turned the Carson Valley into a muddy lake and reopened a channel leading to the Carson Sink near Fallon, bypassing Carson Lake and hastening the lake's disappearance.

" We have had one of the most severe winters ever known," Uriah Allen wrote in a letter from Carson City, dated February 22, 1862. "Not so cold, but from December 1 to February 1 it stormed almost incessantly. It is impossible to estimate the amount of property destroyed in this Territory besides a great loss of human life. All the bridges upon the rivers were washed away."

The Carson area was flooded again during the breakup of the infamous "White Winter" of 1889-1890. When a warm wind, or Chinook, melted the deep snow in late January, Western Nevada rivers went on a rampage. An ice jam on the Carson River¹s East Fork sent a wall of ice, logs, and cordwood into the Carson Valley. Ranchers had to dynamite the ice near Gardnerville to open the river channel. More blizzards were again followed by warming temperatures. On March 4, a dam burst near Genoa flooding the courthouse and routing townspeople out of their beds. By April the Carson River was one mile wide in places.

Las Vegas residents were marking their second winter on December 1, 1906, when the young railroad town was covered by an unusual sight, snow. The storm caused horse-drawn stages to arrive in town hours late. One old-time prospector told the Las Vegas Age that he had seen such a snow only two or three times in the past 40 years.

Then disaster struck in February. Rain-fed floods washed out the tracks of the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad in the Meadow Valley Wash near Caliente, isolating Las Vegas from points east. Soon the town was further cut off from the south when track washed away near Barstow. As food became scarce, Las Vegas farmers sold their old cows and oxen for meat. The saloons ran out of beer, forcing customers to drink locally distilled whiskey. On March 7, the Age noted, "The last ham and eggs were eaten yesterday, and the chickens in town are hiding in the sage brush."

Meanwhile, the same moist air mass had created the worst flooding in Western Nevada history. In Reno, crowds watched from the Virginia Street Bridge as the Truckee River inundated the downtown district. Scores of small buildings were swept away, and the low-lying Chinatown neighborhood suffered great damage.

Twenty miles upriver, another drama played out near the California stateline, where backed-up water was eroding the railroad tracks. Road supervisor Samuel Cupples discovered that a paper company had neglected to open a vent in its hydroelectric dam. Facing down the mill¹s shotgun-wielding superintendent, Cupples dynamited the dam. Seconds later a mighty surge of water headed toward Reno, sweeping away bridges and ripping out gas lines. Whole houses were caught in the rampage.

During the ensuing floods Reno rancher John Kleppe evacuated, but a few days later he returned on a raft. Looking for his prized hunting dog, Kleppe paddled into his house. He found the dog hungry but happy, perched on the family piano as it floated in the living room.

Another flood-related rescue took place in 1910 in the Meadow Valley Wash south of Caliente on the beleaguered Salt Lake line. This time floodwaters carried away most of a train. One flat car was seen more than 10 miles from the tracks. The eyewitnesses thought it was a steamship sailing across the county.

As the flood bore down on the little station at Elgin, the wife of section foreman John Schrader was giving birth. Despite her condition, several railroad men carried her to high ground. They built a fire and a small shelter while a group of women helped deliver a baby boy. The Clark County Review reported, "Despite the distressing and dangerous circumstances, and the fact that they were obliged to be out in the storm all night, both mother and baby are progressing nicely. This was Nature's atonement."

A less happy ending occurred on August 11, 1941 amid heavy thunderstorms that soaked much of Nevada. One-half mile of Western Pacific track washed out near Beowawe, causing 40 cars on a freight train to derail. Floodwaters rushed across U.S. 40. That day Fred Bishop and his wife were traveling east on U.S. 40 on their way to Chicago. Bishop, a veteran Western Pacific train agent, had acted as a weather observer at Sulphur, a lonely posting west of Winnemucca, for more than a quarter century.

When the Bishops encountered the muddy flow crossing the highway near Beowawe, they stopped and got out of the car. Tragically, Bishop was standing only a few feet from his wife when a surge of water caught him. Mrs. Bishop saw her husband swallowed by the torrent. She told a reporter, "As I got to high ground, he waved 'Goodbye, dear,' and that was the last I saw of him." Bishop's battered body was discovered the next day, five miles away.

It was called the "Storm of the Century." For 10 days during the Christmas season in 1955, a series of storms from Hawaii poured wet snow and rain on the Sierra and Northern Nevada. Officials said there was no cause for alarm, but Reno business people remembered the Thanksgiving flood of 1950, which heavily damaged the city , and they swung into action. Volunteers and National Guardsmen stacked walls of sandbags on the riverbank and in store entrances. Contractors supplied cranes to clear logjams and debris in the Truckee River. Parking meters were removed from the five downtown bridges.

Sure enough, two days before Christmas more than two inches of rain pounded Reno in 24 hours. Upstream, nearly every power plant and bridge was destroyed. Wet snow pulled down power lines, severing communication between Western Nevada and California. Logs jammed against bridge supports, and four feet of water flowed into Reno¹s downtown district. Many residents fled, although not before hanging their gifts high in their Christmas trees. At Stead Air Force Base, Christmas furloughs were cancelled, and hundreds of airmen with radios, jeeps, and trucks joined National Guard troops in sandbagging and policing the streets.

Finally, on Christmas Eve, cold air from the Gulf of Alaska turned the rain to snow, and the river began to recede. Overnight the swirling flakes descended on Reno¹s flood-ravaged streets, covering everything with a beautiful mantle of white. Reno residents awoke to their first white Christmas in years.

California-bound pioneers called it the "Humbug River," and Mark Twain was no kinder when he described it as "the poorest excuse for a river I've ever seen." Twain may have enjoyed poking fun at the Humboldt River, but he never saw the river in its fury.

Storms in January 1962 dumped heavy snow on Northeastern Nevada. As temperatures fell to their lowest levels in decades, the ground froze to an unusual depth. Rains came in February, but the water could not penetrate the frozen soil, generating serious flooding in Humboldt River towns such as Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, and Elko. Battle Mountain suffered the most. On February 12, the Reese River overflowed and sent three feet of water into the town. As business owners stacked sandbags, citizens complained that the Southern Pacific's raised track bed was keeping the floodwaters from draining.

A few Battle Mountain residents took matters into their own hands and set off dynamite under the tracks. Said one, "It was only a matter of time before people had to get mad enough to blast." Next, the State Highway Department cut a gap in U.S. 40 to allow Reese River backwater to drain into the Humboldt. SP crews tried to seal one of the breaches with sandbags, but angry citizens blasted it open again. To avoid violence, a Reno district court judge issued a restraining order against the Southern Pacific, preventing it from interfering with flood mitigation efforts for 15 days. As the water drained away, so did the tension between the community and the railroad.

Flash floods, the bane of campers and hikers in the Southwest, can strike with no warning. On September 14, 1974, a distant thunderstorm sent a wall of water 40 feet high roaring down Eldorado Canyon. The flash flood killed nine people and wiped out Nelson's Landing, a popular fishing marina on Lake Mohave about 35 miles southeast of Las Vegas.

The normally dry canyon turned deadly after an intense hail and rainstorm dumped three inches of rain in just 30 minutes in the mountains up-canyon. The muddy torrent crushed the restaurant, grocery store, and bar in about five seconds. Bernie Daniels, a tourist from Glendale, California, remembered, "Heavy hail fell for 15 minutes. Then there was a solid gush. It had to be 30 or 40 feet high."

Daniels had hustled his wife and dog to high ground when he saw two women hanging onto a building while the water swirled around them. The quick-thinking Daniels grabbed a garden hose, tossed it to the terrified women, and pulled the pair to safety. Manuel Cortez was also at the resort when the flood hit. Cortez, who retired as the director of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority in 2004, said after the flood, "I've lived in the desert all of my life, and I've never seen anything as awesome. It was like a big black wall of something." For safety reasons, the resort was never rebuilt.

A year later, residents and tourists faced a major flash flood in Las Vegas. On July 3, 1975, an intense thunderstorm swelled the "dry" washes draining into the city. The Strip was inundated, and two men lost their lives in the flooding. At the Caesars Palace parking lot about 400 cars were damaged or destroyed. Delbert Ball, a visitor from Fort Worth, Texas, said, "I went to my room at 5 p.m., and when I came out at 5:30, cars were under water."

Just as Las Vegans must contend with flash floods periodically, Reno residents watch the Truckee River carefully in winter and spring. The 1997 New Year's flood, which caused $650 million damage in Western Nevada and inundated Reno's downtown district for days, was yet another reminder of how quickly disaster can strike. Eight years later, the relatively mild New Year's flood of 2006 caused another $18 million in damage along the Truckee River.

Whenever the Truckee threatens to spill over its banks, Reno citizens of a certain age may recall the weather bureau notice before the 1955 flood that "no menacing storms appear on the weather maps and a series of storms appear unlikely." Even in a desert state, it's best to be ready for the next flood.

Article originally posted at MicMacMedia.com © 2012 by MicMacMedia.com — Used with permission.